Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Speculative fiction is enjoying a lot of attention at the present time. Harry Potter and the Twilight series have seen mega success. Legions of lesser lights have become household names as well. Romance is the top selling genre almost everywhere. During times of uncertainty there’s always an upsurge in extreme escapism fiction, so it is to be expected that in today’s uncertain times Fantasy and Romance are the top sellers. Sometimes the genres even overlap to become Romantic Fantasies. When life gets really discouraging, then we’ll see an upswing in comedy. Don’t ask me why; that’s just the way it is.

Many people wrap themselves in a self-righteous mantel to poke fun at those who enjoy Romance or view FAntasy with disdain. This is a silly attitude since a touch of romance improves almost any book and being members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we profess to believe in strong marriages and eternal relationships. That kind of marriage doesn’t occur without a little romance. And those who never get too old to believe in Santa have a happy outlook on life.

As a former public library romance novel buyer, I still have a soft spot for an excellent love story and find something worthwhile in most LDS romance novels. Whether buying or reviewing, I divide romance novels into three categories; 1) Boo Hoos – These are stories weak in research and plot, while being strong in sentiment. Characters tend toward stereotypes. The stories are mainly designed to elicit tears and are particularly popular around Christmas, but can appear any time, and they are written by both men and women. Not all are man/woman relationship stories. 2)Formula – In these boy meets girl, an obstacle arises to keep them apart, obstacle is resolved, ends in commitment. These are almost always written by women for women and usually include a strong physical attraction element. 3) Love stories – These follow no formula, touch the heart, but are not calculated to be tear jerkers. Both plot and characters are strong. The love story is based on a realistic friendship, the relationship enhances and expands the life and sensitivity of the major characters. They grow as their feelings for each other grow. They demonstrate a willingness to make meaningful sacrifices for each other and are often committed to a cause grander than their personal relationship. Unlike 1) and 2) the ending of this third type leaves the reader feeling warm and uplifted.

I’ll admit there are a lot of bad romance novels available at the present time, many have more to do with sex than love, but occasionally a jewel appears. A truly good romance novel is a treat to savor.

Comparing Romance and Fantasy novels may seem a little strange, but they actually have a great deal in common besides their popularity in the current market and their extreme escapism value. Both stretch the bands of imagination and both have almost an addictive pull on their fans. Neither deserves to be lumped into a single mold and whether or not fans of one genre respect the other, some of today’s best writing is appearing in these books---some of the worst too.

I’ll admit I’m one of those who usually find Fantasy novels as absurd and useless as many readers find romance novels. I consider all the blood, gore, and absence of moral values in Fantasy novels as offensive as some find the kissing, sex, and bawling in Romances. Bloodthirsty violence is no improvement over lust. Please don’t confuse graphic sex or violence with “realism.” When either become the dominating factor in the story or even in just a scene, the plot is interrupted and realism is out the window.

Because I’ve been somewhat vocal concerning my dislike for most speculative fiction, I decided to attempt an open minded look at what I like and dislike in this popular genre. I acknowledge that readers of this genre, like readers of romance, may feel a need to escape from the pressures of their all-too-real lives. Face it, all fiction is escapism, but the two genres I’m discussing here are more extreme than other forms of escape fiction. Females who are less than pleased with the reality of their love lives may seek the blissful illusion of a dream lover found in a Romance novel, but this doesn’t explain all fans allegiance to the genre. Males who see themselves as leading less-than-heroic lives with little opportunity to be powerful hunters, explorers, or warriors can be the superheroes of their dreams in a fantasy novel. Here again, this theory doesn’t cover all fans of this genre either. There is something in the nature of these two genres that appeals to dreamers, both those who indulge in an occasional daydream to relax and those who continually live in an "other world" fog.

Speculative fiction generally falls into three broad areas just as Romance does; 1)Cinderella Stories - these are the light, fun fairy tale stories that are the stuff of daydreams, wishful thinking, and a means of reconnecting with the tales of childhood, 2)Alternative Reality – these stories involve a different world from the one we know, generally a dangerous one. They usually include strange creatures, magic, potions, war of some kind, and lots of hunts or chases. The hero or heroine has tremendous courage and skills beyond what is considered normal among humans. 3) Futuristic Last Days – These are plausible, realistic stories based on the author’s concept of what the future of the earth and humans may be like at some climatic point beyond the present. They are often based on scientific or religious concepts.

I recently read several very popular fantasy novels; some of those written for younger teens such as The Thirteenth Reality and Sun and Moon; Ice and Snow were fun; some were just silly. I thoroughly enjoyed Chris Stewart’s Great and the Terrible. I wasn’t impressed with any of the Alternative Reality novels I read until I read Servant of a Dark God.

Servant of a Dark God (due to be released in September) by John Brown sat on my desk for weeks before I picked it up. I’ll admit I wasn’t interested. Most novels in this genre have left me with a dark, annoyed feeling, but it was a review copy of a soon-to-be released TOR novel and I’d never received an ARC from Tor before. I received it because I review “Mormon” fiction for Meridian Magazine and the author happens to be LDS. Though I started as a reluctant reader, I soon found myself reading late at night, stealing moments when I should be doing something else, and just plain having difficulty putting the book down.

The novel has a medieval-like setting with a “cast of compelling characters and monsters.” But the monsters aren’t always distinguishable from the other characters. In fact one monster is so well-developed and multi-faceted, readers will have difficulty not identifying with him or feeling compassion for him. There’s a large cast of characters, but much of the story revolves around a young man called Talen, who is impulsive, selfish, arrogant and a little cowardly. He is torn between obedience to the Divine rulers and the promptings of his own heart in a “land where the days of a person’s life can be harvested, bought, or stolen.”

TOR’s press information describes the story as “The Clans muster a massive hunt, and Talen finds himself a target. Thinking his struggle is against both soul-eaters and their hunters, Talen actually has far larger problems. A being of awesome power has arisen, one whose diet consists of the days of man. Her Mothers once ranched human subjects like cattle. She has emerged to take back what is rightfully hers.
“Trapped in a web of lies and ancient secrets, Talen must struggle to identify his true enemy before the Mother finds the one whom she will transform into the lord of the human harvest.”

It sounds gory and brutal, not at all what I would care for, but those distasteful elements are handled well and within a framework of right and wrong; they don’t intrude on the real story. I also liked the fact that the hero learns that he has the power within himself to conquer his enemies without resorting to drugs or an infusion of some kind of magical stimulant. At first I thought the story was some kind of anti-God/anti religion book, but it isn’t. Instead it says a lot about all humans in the beginning being given equal great powers, but through the corruption and greed of those who wish to exert power over others, false gods and religions are invented to control those who aren’t aware of their own power or who are afraid to defend what is rightfully theirs.

Servant of a Dark God is a compelling, complicated novel written in a misleadingly simple style. As in the highest quality literary writing, there are lines and references that bring other great works to mind without actually quoting them. There are moments of cliffhanger suspense and scenes of tender compassion. Terrible things happen, but powerful good rises to meet the challenge, though this is no "and they all lived happily ever after" kind of story. Face it, a fantasy novel that pulled me in so thoroughly, has to be good.

Now for a challenge to all those who mock romance: Pick up one of the really good ones. A couple of recent ones come to mind, The Last Waltz by GG Vandagriff , or All the Stars in Heaven by Michele Paige Holmes. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was by my foray into Fantasy. And Romance readers, try a few Fantasy novels; you may have only tried the wrong type.


Michele Ashman Bell said...

What an outstanding post. I appreciate and agree with all you've said, but never could have said it so eloquently. We do need to expand our reading by trying different genres.

Valerie said...

Thanks, Jennie, for yet another articulate and thoughtful book review (on Servant of a Dark God). I'll be looking for it. But reading your post, I realized what a service you do for so many readers, helping them to navigate the thorny path of so much contemporary fiction. Also, please know I'm thinking of you and hoping for peace and comfort for your family.

Jeri Gilchrist said...

I have to shamefully admit that I don't branch out very often, but the few times I have, I have rarely been disappointed.

Great post, Jennie!